John Coffee Hays. Cap’n Jack. Colonel John C. Hays. Sheriff Hays. Surveyor General Hays.
Surely no other Sheriff in San Francisco’s history lived as storied a life as Jack Hays. Born in Tennessee, a legendary figure in the history of Texas, and one of the founders of the city of Oakland, Hays died in Oakland, California in 1883. He is the only San Francisco Sheriff to be the subject of a published, full-length biography – his exploits as a legendary Texas Ranger could fill volumes, his later adventures and accomplishments in California only added to his dramatic legend.
This sketch of Jack Hays will emphasize his time as San Francisco’s first
Sheriff, although his other adventures will be summarized as succinctly as possible for those unfamiliar with his formal biography, Colonel Jack Hays. Texas Frontier Leader And California Builder (1952) by James Kimmins Greer.
Jack Hays' great grandfather came to the US from Ireland in 1740. Hays was born on January 28, 1817, in Little Cedar Lick, Tennessee. Hays was named for his father's US Army commander at the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, General John Coffee. When he was 15, Jack Hays' parents died in 1832, leaving behind Jack and his six siblings.
After the deaths of his parents, Hays took a job as a surveyor’s assistant. In March of 1836, word came of the declaration of independence of Texas and the subsequent fall of the Alamo, and at the age of 19, he began his first adventure as he rode to Texas to join the Army of the Republic. After a brief stint in the army, Hays joined a newly form group called the Texas Rangers, who were charged with maintaining law and order in the new Republic.
While still part of the Rangers, Hays continued to pursue a career as a land surveyor. In the new Texas Republic, where many new plots of land had been purchased or awarded for service, land surveyors were much in demand. But it was dangerous work since a great deal of the land to be surveyed was under the control of hostile Indian bands. In his capacity of surveyor, Hays was in dozens of deadly fights with Comanches and other Southwestern tribes. At times, Hays even joined up with groups of Indians to fight enemy Indian tribes and Mexicans.
In 1840, President of the Texas Republic M. B. Lamar promoted Jack Hays to the rank of Captain of the Texas Rangers. During the next 18 months, Hays was in dozens of gunfights with Indians and Mexicans up and down the Texas/Mexico border. In August 1841, the citizens of Bexar, Texas elected Hays as County Surveyor. Throughout this period, he continued to fight in many pitched battles along the frontier, mostly with Mexicans who were determined to take over San Antonio and other Texas Republic territory. In 1842, the new President of the Republic, Sam Houston, promoted Hays to the rank of Major in the Rangers.
In 1844, Hays equipped his men with a weapon that would revolutionize the West: the new Colt revolver. At one point, inventor Samuel Colt gave Jack Hays a set of elaborately engraved Colt revolvers, which included an engraving of Hays on one side and the Texas flag on the other.
Most accounts say the first use of the new Colt revolver in an Indian battle
took place on the Pedernales River north of Seguin, Texas on June 8, 1844.
Texas Ranger Captain Jack Coffee Hays and a company of fourteen Rangers
were returning to San Antonio after an extensive patrol when they were
attacked near the Pedernales by a mounted force of some 80 Comanche
Indians. The Rangers immediately counter-attacked with their newly
acquired Paterson Colt five shot revolvers, completely routing the
attacking war party.
During the period from 1843 to 1846, Hays commanded various sized Texas Ranger units and participated in dozens of gunfights with Indians and Mexicans. personally killing scores of opponents. His Ranger units battled rampaging warrior bands of Southwestern Indians, captured horse thieves who were usually shot or hung on the spot, and brought law and justice to a wild and unpredictable frontier. Hays was an excellent horseman, a deadly marksman and a brilliant strategist. He was also very fortunate to have survived: Hays had hundreds of arrows and gunshots directed at him, but somehow was never seriously wounded. The fighting often was furious, his units frequently outnumbered, and the nearest back-up was hundreds of miles away.
According to John Caperton, one of Hays’ most loyal Rangers and his best friend, “About half of the Rangers were killed off every year, and their places were supplied by new men. The lives of those who went into the service were not considered good for more than a year or two.”
In 1845, Texas became a territory of the United States, and on February 19, 1846, the President of the Republic of Texas declared, “The Republic is no more.” The United States Congress declared the Rio Grande to be the new southern boarder of America. The burgeoning western movement of citizens and immigrants to the newly acquired territory increased dramatically.
The Mexican-American War
In May of 1846, General Zachary Taylor was in command of the US Army assigned to protect the recently annexed Texas territory. A Mexican army raiding party captured and killed a group of American soldiers and hostilities between the two countries began in earnest. President James K. Polk sent a message to Congress on May 11, 1846, stating that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil." As the Mexican-American War began, General Taylor asked Texas to provide military support, and Texas Governor J.P. Henderson directed Jack Hays to recruit a regiment of mounted Texas militia to support the US Army.
Hays was elected Colonel of the militia, and though officially named the First Regiment Texas Mounted Volunteers, the unit was best known as “Hays' Texas Rangers.” He led his men on a scouting mission into the heart of Mexico, actively pursuing the Mexican army to the city of Monterrey.
On September 20,
1846, Hays led his 250 Rangers on a combined assault of Monterrey, Mexico. A
US Army command of
2,000 men, led by General W. J. Worth, attacked from the opposite side of the
city. Hays led his men in a pitched battle, first attacking the city, and then
fighting house to house in the streets and alleys of the city for three days. Eventually the city was
taken and a surrender of all Mexican forces was negotiated. By the end of
September, the tour of duty of the Rangers was over, and Jack Hays and his men
returned to Texas. Tales of the exploits and heroics of Hays and the
Texas Rangers made headlines around the country.
A group of Texas Rangers--1885
In February 1847, Texas Governor Henderson sent Hays to Washington, D.C., to urge President James Polk to provide more support in terms of money and troops to protect Texas and her borders. Hays made quite a sensation among the Washington elite, and was asked by President Polk to be Mrs. Polk’s escort at a society wedding. No doubt thanks to Hays' lobbying, President Polk approved the order to raise additional troops to protect the Texas frontier regions.
In early 1847, John Coffee Hays was again called upon to recruit Rangers to support the United States as the War with Mexico continued. President Polk specifically asked that Hays lead his men to Vera Cruz where the American forces were under constant attack by Mexican guerilla units. Polk wrote, “ I suggest that the mounted Regiment from Texas under the command of Col. John C. Hays, who has high character as an officer, be ordered to proceed without delay to Vera Cruz” (Bio, p. 168). Hays and his men sailed to Vera Cruz in October 1847. By this time, Mexico City had already fallen to US armed forces under General Winfield Scott.
Shortly after arriving in Vera Cruz, Hays and a scouting group of 12 Rangers on horseback were attacked by 200 Mexican guerillas. Hays and his men fought the guerillas off, killing many of the attackers without any loss of Ranger lives. Hays was involved in several other fierce gun battles during the march from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, personally killing a number of the enemy while leading his Rangers in numerous battles. The Mexican army referred to Hays and his men as “Los Diablos Tejanos – The Texas Devils.”
Hays and a number of US Army units then went on a two-week march, covering over five hundred miles as they captured several towns and routed many Mexican guerillas. At the end of 1847, they returned to Mexico City.
Armistice between the US and Mexico was signed in March 1848. When Jack Hays led his Rangers out of Mexico City toward Vera Cruz, they had to fight skirmishes with renegade guerilla fighters all along the route. As the war drew to a close, Hays and his troops made their way to Vera Cruz, and just outside the city, he had a chance meeting with General Santa Anna, the deposed Mexican President. Santa Anna had been granted permission to flee the country, but had to wait for a transport ship to enter the port. On March 28, Hays heard that a grand meal was planned for Santa Anna at the house of General Jose Duran, to which U.S. Army officers had been invited. Hays was encamped only four miles away, so he decided to make a visit to “pay his respects.”
Hays showed up at the dinner party and was seen by the ranking US Army Commander, Major John Kenly. Although Hays was not dressed in military garb, Major Kenly approached Hays and offered to present him to Santa Anna. When Hays was introduced to Santa Anna, the deposed general is said to have turned pale, and to have refused to even look at Hays. As soon as Hays politely stepped away, Santa Anna pronounced the entire event over, exited the room and made arrangements to be transported immediately to the coast to board the ship that was taking him safely away from Mexico to Venezuela.
It wasn't until May of 1848 that Hays finally left Mexico to return to Texas. Upon arriving back in his adopted home, Hays and a small group of Rangers traveled throughout the state and were feted at receptions and balls in celebration of his exploits. On his first night back in Texas, a ball and reception were awaiting Hays and his men, but they had only their war-torn uniforms from Mexico to wear. On a dare, Hays wore a purloined dress uniform from General Santa Anna to the event, to the great enjoyment of all.
Jack Hays retired from military duty and was given the job of head surveyor of roads leading west from San Antonio. One of the men in his surveying crew was his former Ranger comrade Major John Caperton, who later became Hays’ chief deputy sheriff in San Francisco. Although Hays' job was to “survey”, he and his crew were actually exploring previously unmapped areas, looking for major passages west. The landscape and weather were brutal and exhausting. After 45 days, the party ran out of rations and subsisted by eating their own pack mules and any wild game they could find. Hays finally returned to San Antonio after 106 days in the wilderness, desert, mountains and treacherous territories both north and south of the Rio Grande. It was December 1848.
In early 1849, there was a brief movement to draft Hays for the office of Texas Governor, but Hays declined. He was then appointed by the federal government in Washington to serve as an Indian Agent under the jurisdiction of the newly created Department of the Interior, at a salary of $400 per year. During the summer of 1849, Hays helped lead a large military and civilian party on a trek from San Antonio to El Paso, with the ultimate destination being California. The terrain was so difficult that a portion of the travelers broke away to follow a southern route, heading for Mazatlan in order to travel to San Francisco by ship. Hays and a large contingent continued on the overland route. Among Hays' group were John Caperton and John Nugent, who would become the controversial editor of The San Francisco Herald newspaper. After making it to Tucson, they stayed for six weeks while party members recovered from various illnesses and injuries. By December 5, 1849, the Hays party had reached the Colorado River, and, after crossing the river, Hays and company headed toward San Diego, California, arriving at the end of December.
Shortly after reaching San Diego, Hays submitted a lengthy report to the Secretary of the Interior about the viability of the route they had traveled and of the need for protection from Apaches along the route. He also submitted his resignation as an employee of the Department of the Interior, and began his next adventure, traveling up the California coast by steamer with John Caperton and John Nugent to join the gold rush in San Francisco.
The steamship was the Colonel Fremont. It passed through a violent four-day storm along the California coast, but after 15 days at sea, Hays sailed through the Golden Gate on January 25, 1850. Hays and his companions found lodging in the Adelphi House on the north side of Clay Street, above Montgomery Street in the burgeoning town of San Francisco.
But Jack Hays’ reputation had preceded him. San Francisco's Alta newspaper announced that Hays was headed for San Francisco days before his arrival, and while Hays' intent may have been to pass through San Francisco to join in the gold rush in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, it was only a matter of days before he was approached by San Francisco civic activist Sam Brannan and others, who asked him to seek the office of Sheriff. California was about to achieve statehood, and city and county elections would be held throughout the new state as an array of newly elected officials prepared to take office for the first time. Hays was 33 years old at the time.
As San Francisco's April 1, 1850 election day approached. there was a very brief, but very lively, campaign for Sheriff. On February 1st, The Alta newspaper noted that Hays had consented to having his name put forward as a candidate. Two days later, John Townes, who had already served as an appointed Sheriff in San Francisco, announced that he would be a candidate (2-3-50, Alta). The third formal candidate had the most money: Colonel J. J. Bryant, owner of several properties, including the Bryant’s Exchange Saloon and a boarding house.
Hays decided to run as an independent even though he had been selected by the Whig party to be their candidate; he simply declined their endorsement. As a result, the Whigs endorsed Townes. The Democrats selected Bryant to be their candidate. Townes took Hays to task in a paid advertisement for failing “to make a public exposition of his views” (Alta, 3-25-50). Other notable citizens offered up their names for the office, including a businessman named John P. Van Ness and even Chief of Police Malachi Fallon. Neither candidate's name made it to the ballot.
While Bryant stepped up expensive newspaper advertisements of his various businesses, and presented concerts from the balcony of his gambling house, Hays' supporters held rallies in the streets and in Portsmouth Square. Since Hays was a hero of the Mexican-American War, many of the local militia leaders were strongly pushing his candidacy. Hays rode through the town on a black horse and on election day rode into the plaza and captivated the crowd with his horsemanship on the dancing and rearing horse as “rockets, squibs, and fire crackers hissed their way through the air” (Alta, 4-1-50). After the votes were counted, Hays was the clear winner with 3,067 votes to Bryant’s 1,131. Mr. Townes was a very distant third with 262 votes. Bryant immediately challenged the election, claiming that Hays was not eligible to be a candidate on the ground that Hays had not been a citizen of the State for six months prior to the election, but the challenged went nowhere and Hays took office as San Francisco's first elected sheriff on April 9, 1850 (Alta, 4-4-50).
In December of 1850, Hays’ wife, Susan, arrived in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, Hays purchased Mountain Home Ranch, a 2,000-acre ranch down the San Francisco Peninsula, in an area that is now Woodside. In 1850, San Francisco County was immense, going from Fort Point at the Golden Gate to the Santa Cruz County border. It was not until 1856 that San Mateo County was created and San Francisco County became the 49 square miles we know today.
In becoming Sheriff, Jack
Hays inherited the a brig floating in San Francisco Bay, the Euphemia, as his
county jail. The ship had been purchased
for $3,500 in October 1849, replacing an old school house on Portsmouth Square
as the city's jail.
The Euphemia was moored near Central Warf, an area now occupied by the intersection of Battery and Sacramento Streets. Since the ship did not have jail cells, the City Council purchased 50 sets of balls and chains at a cost of $523.80 (Gold Rush Jail, James Delgado, California History Magazine, p. 134- 141). Later, the lower deck was converted to a cellblock.
A few months into Hays' term, the prison ship that he had inherited was deemed inadequate, receiving this criticism from the City Council: “Our attention has been recently called to the condition of prison discipline in this city. The ‘brig’ and the station houses are literally filled with prisoners, and we recently heard one of our city functionaries express the opinion that if any more were incarcerated these places would rival the famous black-hole of Calcutta. As it is, six or eight men are crowded into a single cell, scarcely large enough for one man’s accommodation. It has been recommended that another brig be purchased to relieve the crowded state of our prisons” (Alta, 8-4-50). Apparently Sheriff Hays saw the limitations of yet another prison ship and immediately began to work on plans for the construction of San Francisco's first permanent county jail.
The Sheriff, the Jail and the Vigilantes
For Jack Hays, the year 1851 was consumed with efforts to raise funds to build the new county jail amid an historic citizens' uprising known as The Committee of Vigilance of 1851.
The history of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance (COV) is a complex and detailed story, but there are books and articles aplenty describing how the City's lack of law enforcement officers, and the abundance of criminals, led to a committee of businessmen and citizens creating their own police force and court system to punish and even execute criminals. The Committee boasted a membership of over 700 citizens. Sheriff Jack Hays was not a member of “The Committee”, but he was one of the rare public officials who had the approval and assistance of the Committee of Vigilance. The man who first approached Hays about running for Sheriff, Sam Brannan, was a prime organizer of The Committee.
On June 11,
1850, The Committee caught and hung a thief,
John Jenkins, in Portsmouth
Square. A Coroner’s inquest resulted in no one being charged with a crime, even
though two hundred citizens took responsibility in the local newspaper. “Hays was not
called before the coroner’s inquest", W. A. Howard, a vigilante, wrote to the
president of the Committee. "The Sheriff & his officers are with us Heart
and Soul’’ (Papers of the Committee, Mary Williams, p. 32).
Progress on completing the new county jail was going so slowly that Sheriff Hays contributed $1500 of his own funds to keep the project going (Herald, 6-16-51). The building site was on Broadway at Pinkney Alley (now Romolo Place), a block east of Columbus Avenue. Hays’ untiring efforts were lauded by the Picayune newspaper: “The rapid progress towards the completion of the County jail observable under the management of Col. Hayes, and his efficient assistants, gives pleasing hope that the jolly times prisoners have heretofore had of getting into prison, and getting out again, are nearly over. Under the lately defunct dynasty, the county of San Francisco paid in the course of about eleven months, ninety thousand dollars toward the construction of the jail, and at the end of the time – and of the money – the foundation of the building was nearly completed! The Sheriff, Col. Hays, assisted by Capt. Lambert, with a subscription of $1,000, made up by the citizens, has, in the space of seven days, done more towards the completion of the prison, than was effected by the County since the commencement of the work” (Picayune, 6-6-1851).
A week after the lynching of Jenkins, members of The Committee of Vigilance were invited by Hays' chief deputy, John Caperton, to inspect the new Broadway jail which was operating even though it was still under construction. The visit was detailed in Mary William’s definitive book on the 1851 Vigilantes:
The visitors found seven cells occupied; the largest, twelve by fourteen feet, held fourteen prisoners, and the others, six by nine feet, held six each. The keepers’ room was also finished; another tier of cells needed only doors to be habitable; although a part of the building was without a roof. The subcommittee recommended the raising of funds for the completion of the prison and at a General Meeting on July 5 it was resolved that each member should secure ten subscriptions of three dollars each.
Suitable blanks were distributed within a few days, and the work of collection extended over a period of several weeks. In the meantime a further report was made on the condition of the jail. This was transmitted to Sheriff Hays, as is evident from the following note, which is missing from the files in the archives, but may be found in Mary Williams’ Popular Tribunals:, pp 247-249.
Executive Chamber of the Committee of Vigilance,
San Francisco, August 11, 1851.
To John C. Hays, Esq., High Sheriff for the City And County of San Francisco;
Permit me, on behalf of
the Committee of Vigilance, to offer you the annexed report, with the action
thereon; and in their name I offer, with the concurrence of my colleagues, the
thanks of the Committee for your perseverance, skill, and assiduity in bringing
the affairs of our county prison to so happy an issue. We regret much that you
personally should have suffered any pecuniary inconvenience in the prosecution
of its financial affairs, and earnestly hope that the pittance raised by us may
serve to carry out your sanguine expectations and subserve the public safety.
As a public servant we have much in you to commend, and at all times as citizens
will lend our aid to assist you in your legitimate course of office.
May you long survive to serve the state of your adoption and receive the good wishes of your fellow-citizens?
Very truly, your obedient servant,
President of the Executive Committee
Committee of Vigilance:
The need to complete the jail became all the more urgent after June 22, 1851, when a tremendous fire swept through much of the City and a police lock-up on the ground floor of City Hall was lost in the flames. The prisoners housed at the lock-up were transferred to the Broadway jail and immediately overwhelmed all the available jail space. The Committee solicited funds from its members and distributed posted flyers requesting citizens to contribute to the jail construction fund. By September 1851, the COV had raised about $4,700, which was presented to Sheriff Hays.
Over the next several weeks, the Committee operated as a shadow criminal justice agency, arresting individuals, holding them for interrogation in a makeshift jail called “Fort Gunnybags,” at 243 Sacramento Street. Suspected criminals were occasionally turned to Sheriff Hays when the Committee felt the local officials could properly dispose of the case. In the early days of August, however, the Committee held two men who they determined should be executed. Robert McKenzie and Samuel Whittaker were notorious criminals who had confessed to many crimes, but no murders; nevertheless, on August 17th, the Committee announced the two men would be hanged on August 20th. On August 19th, California’s Governor John McDougal, learning of the impending executions, rushed to San Francisco. Arriving around midnight, Governor McDougal summoned Mayor Charles Brenham, and they located a judge who issued a warrant for immediate seizure of the two condemned men. Sheriff Jack Hays was directed to serve the warrant without delay.
|According to historian Mary Williams, “Colonel Hays had no relish for the commission. As has been said, he sustained the most cordial relations with the volunteer police headquarters on Battery Street; he had invited members of the Committee to visit his own jail; they had commended his efforts to complete the building, and had promised substantial financial assistance towards defraying the expenses he has assumed. More than once they had delivered important prisoners into his keeping, and more than once they had frustrated his efforts to take from them men whom they were unwilling to relinquish. At first he thought that it was not his duty, "and rather roughly declined,” but the obligation could not be evaded, and he reluctantly called his deputy, John Caperton, and accompanied the Governor and the Mayor to the rooms of the Committee” (Williams, p. 295).||
Fort Gunnybags, Vigilante headquarters on Sacramento Street
August 20, 1851, was a bizarre day on which the California Governor, the Mayor and Sheriff of San Francisco made a surprise raid on the Committee of Vigilance headquarters to capture Whittaker and McKenzie and take them to the county jail. This was accomplished, and the three officials then come back to the Committee building several hours later to have a seemingly cordial meeting with the COV leaders. The Governor then published a Proclamation in the local papers calling upon citizens to abide by the law and the constitution. But the Committee had other plans.
Four days later, on August 24th, Sheriff Hays was invited by several local businessmen to attend a bullfight south of town (near Mission Dolores). According to Committee member George Schenck, the Vigilantes clearly lured Hays to the bullfight and kept watch over him while he was there (Greer, p. 227). With the Sheriff occupied elsewhere, the Vigilantes stormed the county jail at 2:30 pm, took back inmates Whittaker and McKenzie and hanged them side-by-side from a scaffold within an hour. While at the bullfight, Hays was alerted to the storming of the jail and he immediately rode back into town, but by the time he arrived, the two men had been executed.
There has never been any evidence that Sheriff Hays was aware of the intentions of the Vigilantes, but there is no question that their conduct disturbed him greatly and caused him concern for the security of his position. There is also no doubt that Hays remained a favorite of the Vigilantes. Because of the adoption of yet another new County charter, Hays had to face reelection only weeks after the Vigilante had taken and executed prisoners from his jail. By this time, Hays was already being challenged for the office of Sheriff. On the very night that Hays and the Governor were taking custody of Whittaker and McKenzie, the Whig party was meeting to select a slate of candidates for the September election. They endorsed Charles M. Elleard for the position of Sheriff. Elleard had served as a City constable in 1850 and at the time of the election ran a bar and oyster room.
Historian Mary Floyd Williams relates a conversation that Sheriff Hays had with prominent COV member Garrett Ryckman, in which Hays feared he would not be reelected because of a perceived neglect of duty regarding the hangings of Whittaker and McKenzie. Ryckman assured Hays of the Vigilance Committee's endorsement. The week after the jail takeover, a sub-group of the Committee of Vigilance proposes a slate of candidates for the upcoming election. The list was published in the Alta newspaper on August 28, 1851, and for several days thereafter. Sheriff John Hays was the “Independent Ticket” candidate for the post of Sheriff. Although the COV publicly denied that they make any political endorsements, it was clear to everyone that the Independent Ticket has the blessing of the Committee of Vigilance.
On Election Day, September 3, 1851, Jack Hays became the endorsed candidate of the Democrats as well as the Independent candidate. There was at least one concerted effort to steal the election from Hays. As the Alta reported, “that in the 11th precinct, where 106 votes were polled, all Democratic as a whole, the name of John C. Hays was scratched on every one, and that of Charles M. Elleard substituted. This exhibits some pretty nice electioneering” (Alta, 9-4-1851). Nevertheless, Jack Hays easily won reelection as Sheriff with 3,755 votes to his opponent’s 1,928, besting Charles Elleard in every single precinct except in the11th where Hays received no votes at all (Alta, 9-7-51).
Construction on the Broadway jail moved slowly, but by the end of September 1851, fifteen of the jail cells had been completed (Greer, p. 279). At the time, the jail population was averaging some fifty prisoners a day. During his years as Sheriff, Hays looked for other business opportunities to supplement his income. He began purchasing property and toward the end of the year purchased a home for his family on Powell Street. He and his chief deputy, John Caperton, also entered into a contract with the State to house State prisoners, since the State penal system was still in its infancy.
Although Caperton and Hays were in the state prisoner housing business for only a few months, they not only managed to lose money on the deal, but they were embarrassed when seventeen state convicts escaped from their custody. They had leased a ship called the Wabu, which was anchored, off Angel Island. The prisoners worked in a quarry on the island. In January 1852, seventeen prisoners overwhelmed the guards and rowed away toward the East Bay. Hays and others took up pursuit and captured several of the escapees over the next few months, but many of the convicts were never retaken. Shortly after this incident, Hays and Caperton canceled their contract with the state and concentrated on purchasing real estate. The two men made a major purchase in March of 1852, going in with other investors to buy thousands of acres in the East Bay called Encinal, a Spanish word that means “oak grove.” This land along the estuary and around Lake Merritt eventually became Oakland. The town of Oakland was incorporated two months later. Over the next several years, Hays and Caperton sold off parcels and donated others to schools and the fledgling municipality of Oakland. Jack Hays is widely considered one of the key founders of Oakland.
San Francisco's First Official Execution
During the first 40 years of California’s statehood, it fell to the county sheriff to implement the death penalty. The citizens of many counties took the matter into their own hands prior to and during the first years of statehood, but as the court and justice system developed, legal executions became a relatively common occurrence. California sheriffs executed well over 230 individuals before the responsibility was transferred to the state prison system in 1892.
Sheriff Hays performed San Francisco’s first legal execution on December 10, 1852. The City had seen four men executed extra judicially in 1851 by the Committee of Vigilance, much to the horror and chagrin of San Francisco’s judicial and political leaders. The first man to face lawful execution in San Francisco was Jose Forner, a 32-year-old native of Spain who had been working as a cook in the Hotel Nueva Mondo for about six months. According to Forner’s confession, he had stabbed to death a fellow Hispanic who had stabbed him and tried to rob him. In a matter of weeks, Forner was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
Sheriff Hays had originally decided to perform the execution in Washington Square, but plans changed several times before the day of the hanging. “It was first intended to have executed him on Washington Square, and then in front of the jail, but owing to the repugnance of the citizens of that neighborhood, the Sheriff has fixed upon Russian Hill as the place” (Alta, 12-10-1852). A spot on the highest point of the hill was chosen and the construction of a scaffold was begun when plans changed again. It seems that the chosen location at the peak of Russian Hill was the original burial ground of the settlement when it was still known as Yerba Buena, and was the gravesite of several of its earliest settlers (Alta, 12-10-1852). On the morning of the execution, Sheriff Hays wisely had the scaffold moved several yards down the hillside, “which hid it from the view of the city” (Alta, 12-11-1852).
The execution itself was
reasonably uneventful. In spite of a light rain, a large crowd gathered around
the scaffold early in the day. At one o’clock, a local militia group, the Marion
Rifles, pushed the crowd back and created a perimeter around the gallows, and a
second militia unit, the California Guard, escorted the Sheriff, his staff
and the condemned man to the site. They arrived in a wagon drawn by four black
horses. Forner was led up the gallows stairs;
Sheriff Hays read the execution order and Forner was allowed to speak his last
words: “My friends! You have come to see an innocent man die. I die for having
killed an assassin.” He then briefly explained his case for self-defense and
ended with surprising generosity: “No doubt those that tried me acted justly,
according to the testimony. They could not have known the truth. The Americans
are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it.
I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San
Francisco! World, farewell” (Alta, 12-11-1852).
Forner's legs and arms were then tied, a black hood placed over his head, the noose adjusted around his neck and Sheriff Hays used a hatchet to cut loose the drop. At 1:30, Jose Forner was pronounced dead. Although as many as three thousand men, women and children attended the execution, not everyone was pleased with the spectacle. The Alta opined: “May our criminal records never be stained again with the history of such a dark and bloody transaction.”
Final Days as Sheriff
One month after the Jose Forner execution, Hays took a four-month leave of absence from his post as Sheriff. In mid-January 1853, he sailed to the East Coast and traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce and to seek an appointment as Surveyor General of California. His trip was a successful one. Four days after his return to San Francisco, Jack Hays submitted his resignation as Sheriff to accept his new appointment as Surveyor General. One of his deputies, Thomas Johnson, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to complete Hays’ term of office.
Life after the Sheriff’s Office
Hays served as the state's Surveyor General until late in 1856. He continued to buy and sell real estate, in partnership with his lifelong friend John Caperton. Hays and his wife Susan had five children, although two of them died at a young age. They moved to a beautiful tract of land along Temescal Creek in Oakland called Fernwood, located today at Mountain Boulevard and Thornhill Drive. Each day, Hays rode down to the Oakland waterfront and took the ferry to San Francisco and his office at the Surveyor’s office. Occasionally, when he missed the ferry, Hays would row himself across the bay. Jack Hays became a lifelong activist in local and statewide Democratic politics, often serving as a delegate to the State Convention. It is reported that during the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederate leadership solicited him to lead a military unit, but he declined, choosing to concentrate on local issues.
Jack Hays' Oakland Hills estate, Fernwood. Hays arranged to grade and improve
which twisted down through the Temescal valley from his property toward downtown Oakland.
That road later became Moraga Avenue (Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room).
There was one last big gunfight in Hays’ life. In 1859, when the Comstock Lode was discovered near Virginia City, Nevada, local Paiute Indians marauded and robbed local miners and settlers, killing several. Hays traveled to Nevada and assumed leadership of a force of several hundred volunteers. Hays and his volunteers waged a series of running gun battles with the Paiutes for several weeks, with numerous casualties on both sides, and the attacks on local settlers were stopped.
Jack Hays lived another two decades, immersed in California Democratic politics and managing his vast real estate holdings. Hays was a member of the U. C. Board of Regents and a director of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Asylum in Berkeley (precursor to the California School for the Deaf and Blind). He was a major stockholder in the Oakland Gas Light Company, and the founder and director of Oakland's Union National Bank. In his later years he suffered from painful rheumatism. He died at the age of 66 in his Oakland home on April 21, 1883, and is buried in a crypt in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery at the foot of Piedmont Avenue.
|Jack Hays plaque at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland||John Coffee Hays circa 1857 - by Matthew Brady|
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